Football

Trillick have the tools to send Crossmaglen back to the drawing board

Midfielder Richie Donnelly was instrumental in Trillick's Tyrone final win over Errigal Ciaran
Midfielder Richie Donnelly was instrumental in Trillick's Tyrone final win over Errigal Ciaran Midfielder Richie Donnelly was instrumental in Trillick's Tyrone final win over Errigal Ciaran

AIB Ulster Club SFC quarter-final: Trillick (Tyrone) v Crossmaglen (Armagh) (Saturday, Healy Park, 7.15pm – live on RTE2)

EYES reddened all around, there was an extra energy about the celebrations that followed Trillick’s Tyrone title triumph a fortnight ago.

There are hugs and handshakes, and then there are these kind of hugs and handshakes. You know the ones that last hold that little bit tighter, last that little bit longer. From the passion of Rory Brennan’s speech to the embraces outside O’Neills Healy Park’s ring of steel, there was feeling in everything that unfolded once Errigal Ciaran were felled.

Having lost some much-loved members of club and community, and been deprived of the services of Michael Gallagher, Simon Gallagher and stalwart Mattie Donnelly, this one meant a bit more than any that went before.

But then there is always a premium placed on success in Tyrone – hence the annual conundrum once the county’s battle-worn champions wearily set foot into the provincial arena.

It hardly needs repeating, though here goes anyway, but no Tyrone club has lifted the Seamus MacFerran Cup since Errigal in 2002. Killyclogher in 2016 were the last Red Hand county representatives to win an Ulster senior game.

Cross look into a different landscape, albeit one that has shifted in the latter part of the last decade. Last month’s Armagh final win over Clan na Gael saw them lift the Gerry Fagan Cup for the 23rd time in 28 years but domestic dominance, while still expected, is no longer assumed either within or beyond county borders.

READ MORE

  • Crossmaglen retain Armagh title as second half storm blow Clans away
  • Relentless Trillick hold their nerve to take Tyrone crown from Errigal Ciaran

Ulster, once where the south Armagh men came alive, has proved a bridge too far in recent times – with last year’s quarter-final exit to Ballybay, and 2018 semi-final defeat to eventual champions Gaoth Dobhair, exposing the flaws in the free-flowing approach that previously delivered such success.

On both occasions, Cross were hammered on the counter, their naivety brutally exposed when Gaoth Dobhair ran in 4-11 on the way to victory, while Ballybay adopted a similar template 12 months ago – drawing the sting from their illustrious opponents before a 20 minute spell at the start of the second half proved the winning of the game.

The fall-out from that night has hung in the air ever since Anthony Cunningham succeeded Stephen Kernan. Have lessons been learnt? Will Cross compromise on their traditional style in search of success?

This is not the first time those questions have been asked.

For now, the jury is still out, and will likely remain so until Saturday’s quarter-final clash is over. It could be that edging past Armagh Harps in the last eight, goals conceded again at the heart of their difficulties, has proved a blessing in disguise.

They eventually navigated that one after extra-time but, even against Madden in the semi-final, first half alarm bells were ringing as their opponents repeatedly marauded into the acres of space through the middle. That was rectified at the break, and Cross haven’t looked back since.

But Trillick are made in the same mould as those who have inflicted Ulster championship pain in the recent past.

Well-organised, defensively sound, happy to soak up pressure before bursting forward on the break, Errigal couldn’t find the answers despite having 80-plus minutes to do so. In that time, the defending champions led for the sum total of 20 seconds while the Reds stayed steady, the potent pairing of Darragh and Ruairi Canavan snuffed out to impressive effect.

One set of famous siblings have already been silenced, but the power of the O’Neills – Oisin and Rian - presents a different challenge from the Canavans' swiveling hips.

Oisin has grown in influence since returning from his injury nightmare, and is the heartbeat of this Cross side. Having got the better of the athletic Joe Oguz last time, Richie Donnelly will have another job on his hands.

Daniel Donnelly kept Ruairi Canavan quiet, and could be tasked with keeping tabs on Jamie Clarke. Daire Gallagher, so impressive in closing the space on Darragh Canavan, is likely to pick up Cian McConville.

Peter McCaughey could be handed the Rian O’Neill brief, though Trillick boss Jody Gormley might be tempted to go with the physicality of Rory Brennan – even though he had such a huge impact from a roaming role in the Tyrone final.

Lee Brennan can expect to have Rico Kelly for company, the returning veteran having impressed thus far, while Ryan Gray, Ciaran Daly and the speedy Seanie O’Donnell all carry threats from deep.

How much has the emotion of their Tyrone triumph taken out of Trillick, only time will tell. But they have the defensive discipline and pace on the counter to send Crossmaglen back to the drawing board once more.